Living by Faith, Not by Sight, 1-10

5:1 For we know that if our earthly house, the tent we live in, is dismantled, we have a building from God, a house not built by human hands, that is eternal in the heavens.

Kruse cautions against studying this passage (2 Cor 5:1-10) in isolation from its context.  ‘In fact,’ he says, ‘4:16-5:10 constitutes one integrated section.  It is in the light of the “wasting away” of the “outer nature” (2 Cor 4:16) and the fact that “slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor 4:17) that Paul proceeds to explain what he looks forward to when “the earthly tent we live is destroyed.’

Cheerful confidence

As J.I. Packer says, Paul has ‘cheerful confidence’ (‘we know’, v1) in four things:-

  1. A new body awaits each servant of Christ, v1.
  2. This new body will in some way be linked with our present body: the old with be ‘clothed’ with the new, v3.
  3. In heaven, clothed in our new bodies, we shall see and know the Lord Jesus in ways that are not possible here, in our present bodies, vv6-9.
  4. We will one day face the judgement seat of Christ.  This will determine the quality of our endless enjoyment of Christ’s love and goodness, based on our present love and devotion to him, v10.

(Finishing Our Course With Joy, pp87-90)

Now – or, ‘for’ (linking back to ch 4, esp v 16f.)

The apposition of ‘earthly tent’ with ‘a building from God, an eternal house in heaven’ suggests a more profound contrast than ‘temporary’ versus ‘permanent’.  Paul may well be thinking of Moses’ tent of meeting outside the camp of Israel.  ‘In this tent, God spoke to Moses face to face (Exo 33:7-11). This earthly tent that subsequently became the tabernacle was a reflection of God’s presence among his people as his glory covered the tabernacle. Further, even Aaron’s high-priestly garments reflected God’s holiness and glory. Yet both the tabernacle and the garments revealed transitoriness. The tabernacle was taken down when the Israelites moved to another place, and the garments were removed whenever Aaron’s priestly duties ended.’ (BNTC)

We know – This suggests that Paul is rehearsing a doctrine that had already been taught to, and received by, the Corinthian Christians.

If the earthly tent we live in is destroyed – This must refer to the destruction of the body at death.  The idea of the body as a ‘tent’ implies that it is temporary, fragile, subject to wear and treat, vulnerable.  Our sojourn here is transitory.

Paul, by trade a tent-maker, uses familiar imagery to contrast our temporal and our final form. ‘Our future form will be eternal, not something that can be easily destroyed like a vulnerable man-made tent but rather firm and sure, built by God himself.’ (DBI)

The ‘if’ is real – Paul did not know when the dismantling of his tent would occur, or whether indeed Jesus would return during his lifetime.

Destroyed – The underlying word can also mean ‘torn down’, fitting closely the idea of death as the taking down of a tent.

Paul ‘may have thought of the Feast of Tabernacles, during which the Jews lived in temporary shelters for seven days to celebrate the end of the harvest and to commemorate the forty-year wilderness journey of the Israelites.’ (BNTC)

We have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands – This, in contrast to ‘the earthly tent we live in’, is the resurrection body: permanent, stable and invulnerable.

‘We have’ this resurrection body ‘in the sense that it is a promised and sure possession’ (Reymond).

There is a close parallel between this passage and Rom 8:18-24 (Romans having been written soon after 2 Corinthians).  This latter passage also compares present suffering with future glory, and looks forwards to the redemption of the body.

Where?  N.T. Wright (The Resurrection of the Son of God), always eager to point out the folly of reducing the Christian hope to ‘going to heaven when I die’, says that ‘heaven’ means ‘the place where the divinely intended future for the world is kept safely in store, against the day when, like new props being brought out from the wings and onto stage, it will come to birth in the renewed world, ‘on earth as in heaven’.  Wright illustrates: ‘If I assure my guests that there is champagne for them in the fridge I am not suggesting that we all need to get into the fridge if we are to have the party.’

Wright elaborates: ‘The future body, the non-corruptible (and hence ‘eternal’) ‘house’, is at present ‘in the heavens’ as opposed to ‘on earth’ (epigeios) (5:1); but it will not stay there [cf. Col. 1:5 with 3:1–4; and see too 1 Pet. 1:4]. For us to put it on on top of our present ‘house’ (clothes, bodies, houses, temples and tents; why mix two metaphors if four or five will do?) will require that it be brought from heaven (5:2).

When?  But when do ‘we have’ this building, this resurrection body?  Is it (a) at death; or (b) at the parousia?  F.F. Bruce thought the former to be the case : ‘Here Paul seems to imply that for those who do not survive until the parousia [coming], the new body will be immediately available at death’ (“Paul on Immortality,” Scottish Journal of Theology 24.4 (November 1971) 470-71).  A number of Bruce’s students, including Murray Harris, adopted the same view, although Harris later retracted it.

In Paul: Apostle of the Free Spirit, Bruce wrote: ‘The tension created by the postulated interval between death and resurrection might be relieved today if it were suggested that in the consciousness of the departed believer there is no interval between dissolution and investiture, however long an interval might be measured by the calendar of earth-bound human history.’

Since both are in the future, the use of the present tense must indicate the certainty of Paul’s conclusion, rather than the timing of the event itself.  The consistent teaching of the NT appears to be that the believing dead receive their resurrection bodies at the time of our Lord’s return, (1 Cor 15:42, 51; Php 3:20-21; 1 Thess 4:15-17).

‘John Quincy Adams himself is very well, thank you. But the house he lives in is sadly dilapidated. It is tottering on its foundations. The walls are badly shattered, and the roof is worn. The building trembles with every wind, and I think John Quincy Adams will have to move out of it before long. But he himself is very well.’ (John Quincy Adams)

5:2 For in this earthly house we groan, because we desire to put on our heavenly dwelling, 5:3 if indeed, after we have put on our heavenly house, we will not be found naked.

We groan – ‘This is not the ‘groaning’ of doubt or fear, or even of mortality, but of hopeful ‘longing,’ as of a woman in prospect of childbirth (cf. Rom 8:23–25).’ (Barnett)

When reflecting on what it will be like to be in that interim state between death and resurrection, Paul likens it to being unclothed. The soul has shed its body and is naked. (2 Cor 5:3-4) Paul appears to have somewhat ambivalent feelings about entering this state. On the one hand, he does not look forward to being bodiless- Greeks thought positively about leaving the body behind at death, but Jews did not. On the other hand, to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord, and that is a highly desirable state. (2 Cor 5:6-8) Paul does not attempt to describe what the disembodied soul is like; he only knows it is a temporary state. At the resurrection of the dead we will be made complete again, like Christ in his resurrected body. (EDBT)

We do not long for redemption from the body, but redemption of the body.  This is in contrast to the Gnostic idea of salvation as the release of the soul from the prison of the body.

5:4 For we groan while we are in this tent, since we are weighed down, because we do not want to be unclothed, but clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

We do not wish to be unclothed – ‘Paul speaks of his longing to be relieved from the burdens he experiences in his earthly body. Not that he longs for a disembodied existence, as the gnostics did, but rather he looks forward to life in the resurrection body.’ (NBC)

‘Although the apostle groans, being burdened by sufferings and persecutions which afflict the body, he does not therefore seek escape into a permanent disembodied state.  He longs for a new and better embodiment.’ (Kruse)

Paul’s thought here is consistent with that in Rom 8:23 (the redemption of the body) and in Phil 3:21 (the transformation of the body to be like Christ’s glorious body).

‘The metaphor of “putting off” simply refers to death, which fits well the aspect of the verb’s aorist (past) tense. Paul understands death as a punishment for sin (Rom 6:23; 1 Cor 11:29–30). Death is therefore a fearful experience for humans, and Paul knows that death is the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor 15:26). Death is not a liberation from earthly toil and trouble; it is itself the problem. Resurrection is the answer.’ (Garland, NAC)

‘The burden under which Paul groans is not the mere fear of death, but the separation of the body from the soul by death.  Because death is the unnatural disruption of man’s being as created by God, he could never be satisfied with a gospel which only provided for the redemption of the soul.  He longs for something far richer than the bodiless survival of the soul after death.’ (Wilson)

Upgraded Accommodation

‘The experience of moving into this upgrade accommodation, our resurrection body, linked as it will be on some way with the body we have now…will come to us as an enormous enrichment of the embodied life as we have known it up till now.  [This passage] speaks of this transformational event as an experience not of being stripped or denuded through finishing with our present bodies, but of being “further clothed” (or “Clothed upon”), as wehn, on a cold day, one adds an overcoat to what one is already wearing before venturing out of doors.’

(Packer, Finishing Our Course With Joy, p87f)

Swallowed up by life is reminiscent of Isa 25:8, also cited in 1 Cor 15:54.  ‘Life…is personified as the agent that swallows up mortality. Paul has mentioned the “life of Jesus” in 4:10–11. Recalling this previous reference reminds us that this is not simply a discourse on the topic of the resurrection. The allusion reinforces what Paul says about the main issue in this section—his defense of his apostolic style. His suffering for Christ in this mortal life, carrying around the death of Jesus, will be rewarded. The life of Jesus manifested now in an apostle’s unbecoming and tattered mortal flesh will be the power that transforms this same mortal flesh into a glorious body conformed to his image. The resurrection perfects our salvation, which can only be partial in this body in which we receive only a pledge, not the full reality. This body weighed down and wasting away will be transformed.’ (NAC)

‘There is a new house, a new dwelling, a new body, waiting within God’s sphere (“heaven”), ready for us to put it on over the present one, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up with life…What Paul is asking us to imagine is that there will be a new mode of physicality which stands in relation to our present body as our present body does to a ghost.  It will be as much more real, more firmed up, more bodily, than our present body as our present body is more substantial, more touchable, than a disembodied spirit.  We sometimes speak of someone who’s been very ill as being “a shadow of their former self”.  If Paul is right, a Christian in the present life is a mere shadow of his or her future self, the self they will be when the body which God has waiting in his heavenly storeroom is brought out, already made to measure, and put on over the present one – or over the self that will still exist after bodily death.’ (Wright, Surprised by Hope, 165f)

‘The language of this passage has led some interpreters to feel Paul is here referring to an intermediate body, which already exists in heaven, to be put on at death; but the language is very similar to that of 1 Cor. 15:47–49 where Paul is discussing the resurrection body, even though he speaks of “those who are of heaven,” who shall “bear the image of the man of heaven.” Christ is now, as the last Adam, the man from heaven, bearing His resurrected glorified body; and Paul V 2, p 141 looks forward to sharing the heavenly likeness of his exalted Lord in the age to come.’ (Ladd, ISBE, art. ‘Eschatology’)

5:5 Now the one who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave us the Spirit as a down payment.

Made = ‘prepared’, ‘equipped’, also used in 2 Cor 4:17.  Included within this very process of preparation are the sufferings of believers, 2 Cor 4:16f, cf Rom 8:17.  But behind everything is the eternal purpose of God, Rom 8:28-30.

This very purpose is the transformation of the perishable into imperishable, v4.

God…has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come – Cf. 2 Cor 1:22 Eph 1:14 1 Pet 1:4.  The Christian life is by no means an exercise in waiting for better things.  Those better things are enjoyed, in part, now, through the Holy Spirit.

‘Some Corinthians fail to see this abiding invisible force working in Christians, forming them for heaven by conforming them to Christ. They see only the wasting away of Paul’s outer nature and do not see that he is daily being transformed inwardly (2 Cor 4:7–15). The transient, surface reality of our lives that so many in this world prize and spend billions trying to preserve will eventually be destroyed. The only thing that matters then is what has been happening to a person internally. Those who are in Christ will have their decrepit, decaying outer frames replaced with an eternal glory beyond imagining.’ (NAC)

‘In this life Christians must live with suffering and live by faith. Their treasure is in clay pots, or, to switch metaphors with Paul, in a makeshift, perishable tent. This mortal life is marked by being burdened down, groaning, and longing because our humanity cordons us off from full fellowship with the Lord. But in all this outward suffering, an unseen power and an unseen reality sustain Paul. Paul’s whole life is suffused with confidence because of the assurance of the resurrection (1 Cor 15:12–34, 49). This does not mean that he lives in an other-worldly haze, dreaming of heaven.  He finds great joy and comfort in this life, despite its sufferings, because of the Spirit. The Spirit’s presence in the lives of believers betokens that some of the splendor of the world to come has already broken into this present evil age.’ (NAC)

5:6 Therefore we are always full of courage, and we know that as long as we are alive here on earth we are absent from the Lord—5:7 for we live by faith, not by sight.

Up until now in this passage, Paul has given no indication that the earthly body will not be replaced immediately by the heavenly body.  But now, he begins to hint at an intermediate state, which is characterised on the one hand by a disembodied existence, and on the other hand by a ‘being at home with the Lord’.

We are always confident – Paul has repeatedly stated that he remains confident in God despite many difficulties, 2 Cor 2:14; 3:4,12; 4:1,16.

As long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord – To be ‘at home in the body’ means that God is not known by sight, but by faith, v7.

This earth a place of exile

‘If heaven is our homeland, what else is the earth but our place of exile? If departure from the world is entry into life, what else is the world but a sepulcher? And what else is it for us to remain in life but to be immersed in death? If to be freed from the body is to be released into perfect freedom, what else is the body but a prison? If to enjoy the presence of God is the summit of happiness, is not be without this, misery? But until we leave the world, “we are away from the Lord”.’ (2 Cor 5:6)

(Calvin, Institutes, Vol I, 716)

Death ferries us to the land of promise

‘He lives far from court, and cannot see him whom his soul loves; but death gives him a sight of the King of Glory, in whose presence is fulness of joy. To a pardoned soul, death is transitus ad regnum a passage to the kingdom; it removes him to the place of bliss, where he shall hear the triumphs and anthems of praise sung in the choir of angels. No cause has a pardoned soul to fear death, what needs he fear to have his body buried in the earth who has his sins buried in Christ’s wounds? What hurt can death do to him? It is but his ferryman to ferry him over to the land of promise. The day of death to a pardoned soul is his ascension-day to heaven, his coronation-day, when he shall be crowned with those delights of paradise which are unspeakable and full of glory.’ (Thomas Watson)

‘Do you see how keeping back what was painful, the names of death, and the end, he has emplyed instead of them such as excite great longing, calling them presence with God’ and passing over those things which are accounted to be sweet, the things of life, he has expressed them by painful names, calling the life here an absence from the Lord?  Now this he did, both that no one might fondly linger amongst present things, but rather be weary of them, and that no one when about to die might be disquieted, but might rejoice even, as departing unto greater goods.’ (Chrysostom)

We live by faith, not by sight – Our knowledge of God in this life is characterised by faith; in the life to come, by sight.

‘The term “faith” used here almost as a synonym for “hope” recalls 2 Cor 4:18, where Paul talks about fixing the eyes on what is unseen and eternal.’ (NAC)

‘It is amazing how many people suppose that faith and reason are incompatible.  But they are never set over against each other in Scripture.  Faith and sight are contrasted, but not faith and reason.  For faith according to Scripture is neither credulity, nor superstition, nor “an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbably” [Mencken], but a quiet, thoughtful trust in the God who is known to be trustworthy.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, 176)

'Go by faith not by sight'

Lauren Becker, contributor to Point of Enquiry radio programme and podcast, reflects on her experience of driving by a church billboard which proclaimed the words, “Go by faith, not by sight.”  She says that she worried that all the drivers around her would take the message to heart and close their eyes.  She quickly prepared herself for extreme defensive driving maneuvres.  She calls the slogan ‘dangerously stupid’, and explains that this is one of the reasons ‘we reasonable people’ get so annoyed by people of faith.  She then goes off on a very unreasonable rant about how hard ‘the rest of us’ have to work in order to protect themselves and others from the irrational thinking and behaviour of religious people.

Obviously, both Lauren Becker and the church she criticises so strenuously have both completely misunderstood the text.  Paul is talking about knowing God by faith rather than by sight, not about driving cars (or any suchlike activity) by faith rather than by sight.  And, in any case, the expression is indicative (describing what the situation is) and not imperative (telling us how we should behave).

5:8 Thus we are full of courage and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 5:9 So then whether we are alive or away, we make it our ambition to please him.

To be ‘away from the body and at home with the Lord’ will be to live by sight (v7); for ‘we shall see him as he is’ (1 Jn 3:2).

In the verse ‘Paul seems to recognise that although he does not wish to experience a disembodied state he will have to do so if he dies before the parousia.’ (Kruse)  But even this will be preferable to remaining in his present state, for his desire is ‘to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better,’ Phil 1:23.

Wright says:

‘This is about as explicit as [Paul] gets on the question of an “intermediate state”; clearly he believes that people in such a state will be happy and content.  But…his preference is for the final state, in which one will be given a new body to be put on over the top of the present one, clothing the Messiah’s people in a new kind of physicality whose main characteristic is incorruption.’ (The Resurrection of the Son of God)

A ‘yet more glorious day’

Paul is not denying that the believer has a very real communion with Christ in this life: he continually stresses our present union with Christ and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.  Nor has he forgotten the promise of bodily resurrection.  No: the ‘intermediate state’ is a very wonderful step forward in enjoying unbroken fellowship with our Lord, but those who have died in Christ await ‘a yet more glorious day’:-

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

How like Paul to move from a consideration of our eternal hope to a plea for godly living.

At home in the body or away from it – As Schreiner remarks, this seems to imply an intermediate state, because in our final, resurrected, state, we are not ‘away from the body’. (Paul: Apostle of the Glory of God in Christ, p467)

Reymond (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith) notes that Paul’s language is incompatible with the idea of ‘soul sleep’:

‘The language, “absent from the body” and “at home with the Lord” (v. 8) over against the phrases “absent from the Lord” and “at home in the body” (v. 6) and the note of preference for the former condition over our present earthly existence (v. 8) points to the reality of personal communion with the Lord (versus a state of soul sleep). For if we are now “absent from the Lord” and yet aware of personal communion with him, surely “at home with the Lord” will be in some sense an enhanced personal communion with him.’

We make it our goal to please him – Paul cherished two major ambitions: to win the Lord’s approval, 2 Cor 5:9, and preach the gospel where Christ was not known, Rom 15:20.

Meditation on the future state should never be mere speculation, but should motivate us to please the Lord.

How are we to please the Lord?

‘[Paul] does not state precisely how we are to please the Lord, but we can infer from the context that it comprises speaking boldly the gospel (2 Cor 3:12; 4:1, 13; 5:20; 6:7, 11), taking with good courage the suffering that ensues (2 Cor 4:7–12, 16–17; 6:4–5, 8–10), living by faith, fully confident of the resurrection (2 Cor 4:13–14, 17–18; 5:7), avoiding the taint of idolatry (2 Cor 6:14–7:1), and bringing glory to God (2 Cor 4:15) by living out the message of Christ’s reconciling death (2 Cor 5:19–21).’ (NAC)

5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be paid back according to what he has done while in the body, whether good or evil.

We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ – ‘It is this divine judgment seat (bēma), not Pilate’s (Matt 27:19; John 19:13), not Gallio’s (Acts 18:12, 16–17), not the court of public of opinion, that ultimately counts. No one, including Christians, can escape it. We cannot melt into the crowd. We will be held accountable for our individual actions and commitments. The chances that anyone might fool the God who knows even our subconscious thoughts are nil.’ (NAC)

Appear = ‘be made manifest’; ‘to be laid bare, stripped of every outward facade of respectability, and openly revealed in the full and true reality of one’s character. All our hypocrisies and concealments, all our secret, intimate sins of thought and deed, will be open to the scrutiny of Christ’ (Hughes). Cf. 1 Sam 16:7.

The judgment seat = ‘bema’ – used of the seat on which the Roman magistrates sat to administer justice. Paul’s Corinthian readers well knew what was meant. The impressive remains of the bema are still to be found among the ruins of ancient Corinth. According to Acts 18:12-17 it was to the bema that Paul was brought by angry Corinthian Jews who accused him before the proconsul, Gallio. Gallio, however, refused to adjudicate in Jewish matters and drove Paul’s accusers from the bema.

This is the judgment seat of Christ.  Note the elevated doctrine of Christ implied here, especially his wisdom and authority.

So that each one may receive what is due him – ‘There is no question of a person’s acceptance before God depending upon what he has done in the body.  In his letter to the Romans Paul makes it abundantly clear that no human being shall be justified in God’s sight on the basis of what he or she has done, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).  It was for this reason that God made a new way for people to be justified in his sight apart from works, cf. Rom 3:21-26.’ (Kruse)

The things done while in the body – That is, the things done in this life.  ‘What believers do in this life has serious implications.  They are accountable to the Lord for their actions, and will be rewarded or suffer loss accordingly.  It is this awareness which Paul carries forward into the next section, where he speaks of “knowing the fear of the Lord”.’ (Kruse)

What Paul is speaking of, then, is an evaluation of the lives of his children and the allocation of rewards.  Cf. 1 Cor 3:10-15.

‘What humans do in the body has moral significance and eternal consequences. Everyone who is mindful of their mortality must therefore be mindful of their morality. Schweizer comments that the body, “far from being a burdensome envelope for the divine soul, is the very place where man is tested and in terms of which he will be questioned in the judgment.”’ (NAC)

The prospect of the judgment seat of Christ has particular solemnity for the Christian, who has received more light and more grace. It should not cloud our anticipation of blessedness, but it should spur us on the holiness of life.

The judgement is not a pronouncement of doom, but rather an assessment of worth. For the Christian, there is no doubt about the completeness of justification, Acts 13:39; Rom 8:1; nor any question about the place of merit in his salvation. But we will be held accountable for how we have built on the foundation that has been built, 1 Cor 3:10ff.

Note the harmony between Paul’s doctrine at this point, and James’. For both, ‘the hidden root of faith must bring forth the visible fruit of good works’ (Hughes).

‘The teaching about the judgment seat before which all believers must come reminds us that we have been saved, not for a life of aimlessness or indifference, but to live as to the Lord (5:15). This doctrine of the universality of the judgment of believers preserves the moral seriousness of God.… The sure prospect of the judgment seat reminds the Corinthians—and all believers—that while they are righteous in Christ by faith alone, the faith that justifies is to be expressed by love and obedience (Gal 5:6; Rom 1:5), and by pleasing the Lord (v. 9).’ (Barnett)

God does not, however, defer his scrutiny of the heart; all things are open to his gaze right now, Heb 4:13. ‘Let us then imagine Christ’s judgment-seat to be present now, and reckon each one of us with his own conscience, and account the Judge to be already present, and everything to be revealed and brought forth’ (Chrysostom).

‘The Day of Judgement is remote, thy day of judgment is at hand, and as thou goest out in particular, so shalt thou be found in the general. Thy passing bell and the archangel’s trumpet have both one sound to thee, In the same condition that thy soul leaves thy body, shall thy body be found of thy soul. Thou canst not pass from thy death-bed a sinner, and appear at the great assizes, a saint.’ (Unknown)

‘The character wherewith we sink into the grave at death is the very character wherewith we shall reappear at the resurrection.’ (Thomas Chalmers)

This prospect of appearing before the judgement seat of Christ is certainly a motive for holy living, v9. ‘But it should not cause terror or alarm on the part of believers, because even sins that are made public on that day will be made public as sins that have been forgiven, and thereby they will be the occasion for giving glory to God for the richness of his grace.’ (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1144).

The Message of Reconciliation, 11-21

5:11 Therefore, because we know the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade people, but we are well known to God, and I hope we are well known to your consciences too.

Persuade – of the integrity of his character and the authenticity of his ministry, 2 Cor 1:12ff; 3:1ff; 4:1ff; 6:3ff; 7:2ff; 10:1ff.

‘To stand before the Lord Christ seated on his throne of judgement is indeed a fearful thing, but for whom – Paul or the people he sought to persuade? It is quite probable that he was thinking of the judgement of both sinners and the servants of the Lord. Paul knew that his ministry as an apostle would be subject to judgement with the giving or withholding of commendation as the outcome. (1 Cor 4:1-5) He also knew that sinners, “objects of wrath,” (Eph 2:3) face the just condemnation of God if they do not accept reconciliation with God through Christ. Whether, therefore, Paul thought of the sinners’ or the servants’ judgement, the fear of the Lord inspired him to persuade men. While fear is not the highest motive for behaviour, it is, nevertheless, a valid motive. Fire and heat are realities that can injure or kill; we treat them with great respect. That “we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ” is also an objective reality. It is one which motivates us to exercise our ministries so that on the one hand we are commended and, on the other, those to whom we speak are no condemned.’ (Barnett)

‘Given his call, the integrity of his life, and his ministry of suffering and the Spirit, the legitimacy of his ministry is already “plain to God” (5:11; cf. 1:12–2:4; 2:14–17; 3:3–6; 4:1–18). Nor is he justifying himself before the Corinthians. The legitimacy of his ministry should already be “plain to [their] conscience” through the evidence of their own lives (cf. 3:1–3). This is Paul’s “hope” in 5:11, which points not to a “wishful thinking” (the meaning of   p 237  “hope” in contemporary American usage), but to his “confidence for the future” (the meaning of “hope” in the New Testament).’ (Hafeman)

Interestingly, Paul makes little or no appeal to ‘signs and wonders’ in legitimizing his ministry, although he certainly performed miracles. For him, the genuineness of his ministry was that he ‘persuaded men’, and that congregations of believers (‘living letters’) had sprung up, vv11-13.

5:12 We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to be proud of us, so that you may be able to answer those who take pride in outward appearance and not in what is in the heart.
5:13 For if we are out of our minds, it is for God; if we are of sound mind, it is for you.
5:14 For the love of Christ controls us, since we have concluded this, that Christ died for all; therefore all have died.

‘The doctrine of reconciliation is most fully explained at the end of 2 Corinthians, which teaches that although we are alienated from God by sin, God has reconciled us to himself through Jesus, and has made us messengers of reconciliation to the world. To outline the passage in another way, God is the author, Christ is the agent, and we are the ambassadors of reconciliation.’ (Ryken)

The love of Christ controls us – (NIV – ‘Christ’s love compels us’).  Is this subjective genitive (Christ’s love for Paul), or objective genitive (Paul’s love for Christ)?  Garland argues that ‘since Paul describes what God has done in Christ as an expression of love and means of reconciliation, Christ’s love for him (Gal 2:20; Eph 5:21; 2 Thess 2:16) is the primary reference.’  However (adds Garland) it is Christ’s love for us that issues in a response of love toward him (cf. Eph 6:24).

‘Controls’ = Gk synechei, as in Php 1:23 (‘I am hard pressed between the two’).  The word may have a positive connotation: Christ’s love for Paul continually motivates him for his task whatever others may think or say. When we consider Paul’s achievements, we conclude that the love which motivated them must indeed have been ‘love so amazing, so divine’.  On the other hand, the word could equally have a negative connotation: Christ’s love captivates and restrains him, holds him fast, ‘leaves him no choice’ (cf. NEB).  Garland: ‘The love of Christ keeps Paul from living for himself and instead causes him to pour out his life for others. Barnett comments that for Paul “egocentricity has given way to Christocentricity.”’

Does Christ’s love compel us?

‘What we need is not to squeeze more fleeting, religious experiences into our fast-paced lives. Rather, we need a more profound understanding of the gravity of life lived in the “fear of the Lord” (cf. 5:11), laced with a deeper joy in knowing “God’s favor” (cf. 6:2). Concretely, this means taking time to focus on Christ as the means and model of our new life in Christ. The way to avoid “receiving God’s grace in vain” is to get to know Christ better, that is, both his role within redemptive history and the teaching and example of his life. For our new creation takes place “in Christ” (5:17), we have been reconciled to God “through Christ” (5:18, 19, 21), and, like Paul, we are “Christ’s ambassadors” (5:20). That Paul himself had such a focus can be seen in the fact that he interprets both of his motives for ministry Christologically: Paul is moved by Christ as Judge in 5:11 and by Christ as Savior in 5:14. As a result, he implores his readers “on behalf of Christ” to be reconciled with God (5:20).’ (Hafeman)

One died for all – ‘For’ = Gk hyper – this could mean ‘for the benefit of’, or ‘in the place of’. The preposition ‘anti’ would express the latter meaning unambiguously. Robertson and others claim that ‘hyper’ is used here in the sense of substitution as in Jn 11:50 Gal 3:13. This meaning is supported by the context.

‘All’ could refer to all believers, or all people. ‘The ones he died for are the same as the “all” who “died” with him as a result of his death, who are mentioned at the end of the verse.’ (New Geneva)

Therefore all died – When he died, the all died at the same time.

‘As the burgess of a town or corporation, sitting in the parliament house, beareth the person of that whole town or place, and what he saith the whole town saith, and what is done to him is done to the whole town, even so Christ upon the cross stood in our place, and bare our persons, and whatsoever he suffered we suffered, and when he died all died with him – all the faithful died in him, and, as he is risen again, so the faithful are risen in him.’ (John Boys)

5:15 And he died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised.

Reconciliation presupposes alienation, and this verse indicates one of the characteristics of alienation from God – living for ourselves rather than for God.

Cf. 1 Cor 6:20.

5:16 So then from now on we acknowledge no one from an outward human point of view. Even though we have known Christ from such a human point of view, now we do not know him in that way any longer.

From now on we acknowledge no one from an outward human point of view – using worldly criteria.

‘To “know according to the flesh” is to know according to the practical judgments of human reasoning.’ (Seifrid)

‘To know someone “after the flesh” is to form an estimate of them on the basis of human standards (regard … from a worldly point of view). Yet human standards are faulty because they are based on externals like heritage, intelligence, wealth and social status (2 Cor 11:22; 1 Cor 1:26).’ (Belleville)

We once regarded Christ from a worldly point of view – This phrase attaches to ‘regarded’, not ‘Christ’. It is bad exegesis to understand Paul as being indifferent to the historical Jesus, and only interested in the Christ of faith. What he is saying is that his former attitude (Acts 26:9) had been drastically altered. (cf. Rom 1:5)

Kruse: ‘Paul is talking about a way of knowing (‘according to the flesh’), not about a particular phase of Christ’s existence (Christ after the flesh = the historical Jesus). Paul is saying that previously he had an inadequate knowledge of Christ—one based on a worldly point of view—but now his understanding of Christ is no longer limited in that way.’

Belleville: ‘Some have understood Paul to be rejecting knowledge of the earthly, physical Jesus in favor of the risen, spiritual Christ. But this is to take the verse out of context. He has just distinguished himself from those who form their judgments of a person on the basis of external appearances (“what is seen,” v. 12). In particular, he is thinking of the Corinthian intruders who presented themselves as power evangelists and polished speakers, emphasizing the outward display of the Spirit in the working of miracles, revelations, ecstatic experiences, knowledge and charisma.’

‘Before he came to faith, Paul looked at Christ the way the world looks at him. That is to say, his judgement about Jesus was based on outward appearances. Like most Jews, he was offended by the manner of Christ’s death. He knew from his Bible that anyone who died on a tree was under God’s curse, Deut 21:22f. Therefore, in Paul’s mind the fact that Jesus was crucified was the proof of his damnation. However, his prejudice against Jesus because of his humiliating death changed when he became a Christian. Then Paul was able to look at things from God’s perspective, and to understand that Christ was crucified to suffer to curse against our sin. The point is this: he could not understand what Jesus was all about as long as he remained alienated from God. He had to be reconciled first.’ (Ryken)

Regarding Jesus from a human point of view

‘Opinions about Jesus Christ have changed since Paul’s day. In these postmodern times it is much more common for people to think that Jesus is irrelevant than to thing that he is accursed. Most people believe that Jesus was a historical person. Many consider him a great moral teacher. Others view him as a political revolutionary. But all these opinions about Jesus Christ share one thing in common they look at him from a merely human point of view. From such a superficial vantage point, Jesus of Nazareth may seem like a common criminal, a venerable sage or a subversive politician, But he will never appear to be the Saviour of the world.’ (Ryken)

5:17 So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away—look, what is new has come!

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creationlit. ‘if anyone in Christ, a new creation’.

‘This phrase, “in Christ,” can mean several things that are not mutually exclusive: that one belongs to Christ, that one lives in the sphere of Christ’s power, that one is united with Christ, or that one is part of the body of Christ, the believing community. Paul’s assumption is that being in Christ should bring about a radical change in a person’s life.’ (Garland)

‘He is a new creation’ could be translated either, ‘he is a new creation’ (NIV) or, ‘there is a new creation’ (NRSV).  The NIV is probably correct, in the light of the pronoun ‘anyone’.  The apostle was already thinking about this creation/new creation theme in 2 Cor 4:6, with its allusion to Gen 1:3f.  See also Gal 6:15.  In context Paul is drawing attention to the fact that the Christian believer, having experienced this ‘new creation’, sees things in an entirely different way.

Garland remarks that ‘later rabbinic texts refer to proselytes becoming new creatures, and a similar idea may have been part of Paul’s thinking.’

Nevertheless, the context is corporate, or even cosmic (‘us’, v18; ‘the world’, v19, and so on).  Isaiah saw God’s restoration in terms of ‘a new heavens and a new earth’, i.e. a new creation (Isa. 65:17–19; 66:22–23).  This would entail a return to the ideal conditions of the garden of Eden, Isa 51:3.  Paul teaches in Rom 8:19-22 that all created things will share in this glorious renewal.

But the new creation is not just a one-time event.  We are in the process of being transformed, 2 Cor 3:18; 4:16f.  Kruse: ‘The thrust of this statement is that when a person is in Christ, he or she is part of the new creation.’  The same commentator adds that ‘it is true, of course, that for the time being the old still persists and the new has not yet fully come (cf. Rom. 8:18–25; Gal. 5:15–26). However, in our present passage it is the newness of life in Christ now which is being stressed, rather than the limitations and the tension involved in participating in the new creation while still living as part of the old.

Hafeman: ‘The new creation, like the kingdom of God, is already here, but not yet here in all its glory. Within the dawning of the new creation, the revelation of God’s glory among a restored people results in a life of growing obedience by the power of the Spirit, in contrast to Israel’s continuing hard-heartedness and the wickedness of the nations (cf. 2 Cor. 3:14–18; 4:3–4). As an outpost of the “new creation” in Christ under the new covenant, the Corinthians testify by their obedience and separation from evil that the Spirit is truly at work among them (cf. 1 Cor. 5:1–6:20; 2 Cor. 6:14–7:1).’

The old has gone, the new has come! – As Hafeman remarks, the implication of the first part of the verse is not that those who are in Christ achieve a state of super-spirituality, but rather the kind of transformation of which Paul has spoken in v15.

5:18 And all these things are from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and who has given us the ministry of reconciliation. 5:19 In other words, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s trespasses against them, and he has given us the message of reconciliation.

2 Cor 5:18-21 teaches that

1. God himself is the author of reconciliation. The initiative was not ours: we do not reconcile ourselves to the Father, he reconciles us to himself. It was not even Christ’s: his initiative was in submission to the initiative of the Father, Heb 10:7.

2. Christ is the agent of reconciliation. And his reconciling work is complete, with the effect that God does not reckon our sins against us, but has reckoned them to Christ instead, and with the effect that we might stand before God with the righteousness of Christ reckoned to us.

3. We are the ambassadors of reconciliation. ‘It is not enough to expound a thoroughly orthodox doctrine of reconciliation if we never beg people to come to Christ. Nor is it right for a sermon to consist of an interminable appeal, which has not been preceded by an exposition of the gospel The rule should be “no appeal without a proclamation, and no proclamation without an appeal.”…It is a remarkable truth that the same God who worked “through Christ” to achieve the reconciliation now works “through us” to announce it.’

Based on Stott, The Cross of Christ, 192-202

God…reconciled us to himself through Christ – ‘We do not reconcile ourselves to God; God reconciles us to himself.’ And this, even though it was us who caused the alienation in the first place. ‘God was not the one who had to cover himself with fig leaves or run away and hide…Ordinarily, reconciliation is the obligation of the one who caused the alienation in the first place. It is up to the sinner to make amends, not the one who has been sinned against. One would expect, therefore, that it would be incumbent upon us to reconcile ourselves to God. This is the basic premise of paganism, that it is up to human beings to appease the anger of the gods. But Christianity is a religion of grace, and the message of salvation is that God has reconciled us to himself.’ (Ryken)

The ministry of reconciliation – ‘It is not enough to expound a thoroughly orthodox doctrine of reconciliation if we never beg people to come to Christ.  Nor is it right for a sermon to consist of an interminable appeal, which has not been preceded by an exposition of the gospel  The rule should be “no appeal without a proclamation, and no proclamation without an appeal.”‘ (Stott, The Cross of Christ, 201)

God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ – 

How to punctuate?
Fee (Pauline Christology) says that this could be punctuated in the following ways:-

1. ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.‘  This would suggest the meaning that in the incarnation, God was reconciling the world to himself.  This is the interpretation followed by the AV, and was the prevailing one for many centuries.

2. ‘God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.‘  That is, through the work of Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.  This is the interpretation most favoured in recent years, as reflected in many modern translations.

3. ‘God was in Christ the world reconciling to himself.‘  This retains the ambiguity inherent in the original (which, of course, was not punctuated).  Fee thinks, on grammatical grounds, that this is the most likely translation.  And, ‘although this is not incarnation in the traditional sense, it does suggest that Paul saw the closest kind of relationship between the will of the Father and the saving work of the Son; and it is out of this recognition that Paul has become such an avid and devoted follower of the Son.’

God…in Christ – ‘If we speak only of Christ suffering and dying, we overlook the initiative of the Father.  If we speak only of God suffering and dying, we overlook the mediation of the Son.  The New Testament authors never attribute the atonement either to the Christ in such a way as to disassociate him from the Father, or to God in such a way as to dispense with Christ, but rather to God and Christ, or to God acting in and through Christ with his whole-hearted concurrence.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, 54)

The world – Probably, as in Rom 4:9-12, meaning Gentiles and well as Jews (so Hafeman and others). It can hardly refer to the whole creation, given the reference to ‘men’ and their ‘sins’. Nor can it refer to all people, since Paul makes it clear elsewhere (Rom 1:18-32; 2:5-11; Eph 5:3-6; Col 3:5-6) that God does count the sins of unbelievers against them.

Not counting men’s sins against them – These sins, of course, constituted the barrier which alienated people from God. Reconciliation removes this barrier. The basis on which this was possible is indicated in v21, where it is asserted that our sins were charged to Christ’s account.

5:20 Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making His plea through us. We plead with you on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God!”

We implore you on Christ’s behalf – Wright says that this expression is frequently misunderstood, because it is frequently mistranslated.  There is no word for ‘you’ in the Greek.  Paul simply says, ‘We make our appeal on Christ’s behalf’.  As in 2 Cor 5:11, It is an expression of his habitual ministry.

Be reconciled to God – Note the passive voice. ‘The Scripture does not say, “Reconcile yourselves to God,” but “Be reconciled to God”. It is not our responsibility to make friends with God, but simply to respond to the friendship he offers.’ (Ryken)

Ambassadors – ‘presbeuo‘ – lit. to be older or eldest. The word came to be used for functions ‘for which the wisdom of age was a necessary prerequisite’ (Kruse). The word was used of a political ambassador. Here, ‘the God who reconciled the world to himself through the death of his Son, now actually appeals to the world, through his ambassadors, to be reconciled to God.’ (Kruse).

Wright protests: ‘The second half of verse 20 isn’t addressed to the Corinthians in particular, as some translations imply; it’s a general statement of Paul’s ministry. He is saying, in effect, ‘This is what I do! I’m not a philosophical teacher or rhetorical trickster; I’m a reconciler!’’

‘The gospel is put into the hands of men for a distinct purpose, and is to be administered in accordance with the plan of its author. The preacher is in a very distinct sense a trustee. “But even as we have been approved of God to be intrusted with the gospel, so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God who proveth our hearts” (1 Thess 2:4). Those who have accepted the responsibility imposed upon them by this Divine commission are enjoined to exercise their office so as to warrant the approbation of Him who has appointed them to a specific work. The homiletic practice of taking the theme of every sermon from a passage of Holy Writ has been an almost invariable rule in the history of the church. It is the business of the preacher to present the truth embodied in the text in its integrity. In the exercise of his Divinely appointed ambassadorship he is to administer God’s word revealed to Christian faith, not human opinions or speculations.’ (David H. Bauslin, in ISBE, 1st ed., art. ‘Preaching, Preaching’)

5:21 God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God.

P.E. Hughes comments: ‘There is not sentence more profound in the whole of Scripture, for this verse embraces the whole ground of the sinner’s reconciliation to God.’

‘We obviously stand at the brink of a great mystery and our understanding of it can be only minimal’ (Kruse).

Here ‘is surely one of the most startling statements in the Bible, yet we must not on that account evade it. James Denney was not exaggerating when he wrote of it, “Mysterious and awful as this thought is, it is the key to the whole of the New Testament.” For our sake God actually made the sinless Christ to be sin with our sins. The God who refused to reckon our sins to us reckoned them to Christ instead. Indeed, his personal sinlessness uniquely qualified him to bear our sins in our place.’ (Stott, The Cross of Christ, 200)

God made him…to be sin

Jesus thus becomes ‘the sinless sinner’ (Michael Cameron, quoted by Seifrid).

According to Seifrid, it is telling that Paul does not name the cross here.  Instead, he unveils the inner meaning and significance of the cross.

‘It is likely,’ says Seifrid, ‘that Paul’s identification of Christ with sin recalls the usage of Leviticus in which the sacrificial offering for sin is identified with the people in their sin. The Levitical sacrifice was not merely an action or work, but entailed an identification of “being.”’ (See Lev 16:1–34; 17:12–14)

Seifrid again: ‘In this verse Paul does not describe “sin” as a mere act, or even as mere guilt, but as the guilt and power of evil that have taken up residence in the human being.’

In what sense did God make Christ to be sin for us?

2 Corinthians 5:21 ‘God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God.’

According to Stott,

‘[This] is surely one of the most startling statements in the Bible, yet we must not on that account evade it. James Denney was not exaggerating when he wrote of it: “Mysterious and awful as this thought is, it is the key to the whole of the New Testament.”’ (The Cross of Christ, p196)

Paul’s meaning here has been variously interpreted.

1. Some think that Paul means that Christ was made a sin-offering. This is supported by Paul use elsewhere of sacrificial terminology to bring out the meaning of Christ’s death, Rom 3:25; 1 Cor 5:7; and by the use of the same word in Lev 4:24 and 5:21 (LXX) for ‘sin’ and ‘sin-offering’.

According to the IVP NT Commentary,

‘This draws on the Old Testament notion that God made the life of his servant a guilt offering. (Isa 53:10) On the whole, this last interpretation seems the likeliest one. The equivalent Hebrew term can actually mean either “sin” or “sin offering” (as in Lev 4:8-35). Also, the logic of verse 19 almost demands it. If our debts are not posted to our account, it is because someone else has legally assumed them-much as the scapegoat did on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16) and the guilt offering did on other occasions (Lev 4-5). This is why God can make overtures of friendship toward those who are otherwise his enemies.’ (IVP NT Commentary)

Hafeman comments:

‘Like its parallel designation “concerning sin” in Romans 8:3 (cf. Isa. 53:10), this description reflects the LXX rendering of being made a “sacrifice for sin” or “sin offering” in Leviticus 4:13–14, 20–21, 24; 5:6–7, 10–12; 6:18; 9:7; 14:19; 16:15. Accordingly, this portrayal of Christ’s death as a sacrifice for sin indicates that the death/blood of Christ is the means by which God fulfills the need for atonement prefigured in the sacrifices of the Sinai covenant (cf. Rom. 3:25–26; 4:25; 5:8; 8:3; 1 Cor. 6:11; 11:23–26; 15:3–5; Col. 1:19–20 against the backdrop of Lev. 10:17; 16; 17:11).’

Garland (NAC), however, argues that the idea that ‘sin’ here means ‘sin offering’ is unlikely.  Although the word is sometimes used in that sense in the LXX, it does not carry that meaning anywhere else in the NT.  And this would be to give one word two different meanings (‘sin’ and ‘sin offering’) same sentence.  Moreover, if Paul had meant ‘sin offering’, then he would have been more likely to say that God ‘presented’ or ‘offered’, rather than ‘made’.  Garland favours the meaning, ‘Christ was made a sinner’.  The logic of the passage is, ‘Christ was made sin in order that others might be made righteous.’

2. Others think that it means that Christ was made to bear the consequences of sin. This is supported by Gal 3:13, which interprets the death of Christ in terms of the his bearing the consequences of our sins. It is also supported by the parallelism of the verse itself, in which the second phrase (our becoming the righteousness of God) should be construed as the antithetical counterpart of the first phrase. Our sins, instead of being counted against us, v19, were charged against Christ, cf Isa 53:4-6,12. As a consequence, his relationship with his Father was, momentarily but terribly, severed, Lk 22:42; Mt 27:46. ‘Paul says that Christ became sin; that is, he came to stand in that relation with God which normally is the result of sin, estranged from God and the object of his wrath…We correspondingly, and through God’s loving act in Christ, have come to stand in that relation with God which is described by the term righteousness, that is, we are acquitted in his court, justified, reconciled. We are no longer his judicial enemies, but his friends.’ (Barrett)

3. Still others think that this means that Christ was “treated as a sinner.” ‘As our substitute, Christ came to stand in that relation with God which normally is the result of sin, that is, estranged from God and the object of his wrath (Barrett 1973:180).

4. A further approach to is understand ‘made … sin’ with Christ’s assuming a human nature. Through the incarnation Christ was made “in the likeness of sinful man” (Rom 8:3).

5. Many in the Reformed tradition invoke the doctrine of imputation.  Accordingly, Christ so identified with us sinners that he becamse liable to the punishment of our sin.

According to Donald MacLeod,

‘Christ on that cross took His identity from sin, bearing all it deserved. He became the sin of His people. He came to be identified with their guilt and liable to their punishment. And because He was Sin, He became a curse (Galatians 3:13). There was no mitigation and no sparing. There was only the absolute recoil of God from the sin His Son was. He was katara: cursed, banished.’ (A Faith to Live By)

The key to the interpretation of this profound verse is the idea of imputation. Our sin was imputed to Christ, so that Christ’s righteousness might be imputed to us. Here, notes Peter Lewis, ‘we see the double-transfer of our sin to Christ and of his righteousness to us.’ As C.K. Barrett says, ‘It is important to observe that the words Paul uses are words describing relationships.’ When it says that Christ ‘became sin’, it means that ‘he came to stand in that relationship with God which normally is the result of sin, estranged from God and the object of his wrath.’ And Calvin says that accordingly ‘here righteousness means not a quality or habit but something imputed to us, since we are said to have received the righteousness of Christ.’

‘While he was personally the object of the Father’s everlasting love and complacency, he was officially guilty in our guilt. The paternal and the governmental on the part of God may easily be distinguished and viewed apart. He never was the object of the Father’s loathing or aversion, even when forsaken. He never was, what the sinner inevitably is, abhorred, or abominable; because a distinction could always be made between the only begotten Son, the righteous Servant, and the sin-bearing Substitute.’ (Smeaton)

‘Galatians 3:13 offers an important parallel. Paul asserts that Christ became a curse in order that blessing might come to others. This statement matches what he says here: Christ became sin in order that others might become the righteousness of God. Paul is not focusing on Jesus’ human life but on his inglorious death. Christ experienced the consequences for human sin. The one who lived a sinless life died a sinner’s death, estranged from God and the object of wrath. He was treated as a sinner in his death.’ (NAC)

In what sense did was Christ made sin for us?  Is it as representative (on our behalf), or as substitute (in our place)?  The linguistic evidence is in favour of the word hyper being used in the latter sense.  ‘Christ does not become human in order to stand in solidarity with humanity but to stand in its place and to participate in a twofold imputation: he receives the burden of humanity’s sin while humanity receives God’s righteousness.’ (B.H. McLean)

James Denney complained that it was usual to hear this verse paraphrased as ‘He became sin’ whereas it actually says, ‘God made him…to be sin’. God the Father is as actively involved in atonement as God the Son. Cf. Rom 8:32.

‘The twentieth century has seen many chilling manifestations of evil. But the cross of Jesus Christ is a greater scandal to faith than Belsen or Auschwitz or Aberfan because here is the Omegapoint of the demonic and the irrational: God’s own Son is being dealt with by God in the way that sin deserved.’ (McLeod, A Faith To Live By)

Who had no sin – lit., ‘who knew no sin’. As Scott remarks, this is the only place where Paul makes an explicit statement about Christ’s sinlessness.  However, it is presupposed in Rom. 5:19; 8:3; Phil. 2:8.  See also Mt 27:4,23; Lk 23:47; Jn 8:46; Heb 4:15; 1 Pet 1:19; 2:22.

For us – Does the preposition hyper here mean ‘on our behalf’, or ‘in our place’?  In other words, was Christ made sin as our representative, or as our substitute?  Although some interpreters, such as Hooker, argue for the former, many find convincing evidence for the latter (see Isa 43:3f (LXX) and Jn 11:50, for example).  In fact, such expositors tend to see in this verse a double exchange: ‘Christ became identified with sinful humanity, exchanging the situation proper to his own sinlessness for the condition consequent upon human sin. In this second half the second element is described. Through their relationship with Christ, men and women may exchange their sinful condition for the state designated ‘God’s righteousness’ (Thrall).

So that in him we might become the righteousness of God – As previously noted, this is often taken to be the antithetical counterpart to the statement ‘he was made sin’.

An alternative view of 2 Cor 5:21
N.T. Wright has argued that Paul’s teaching here is

‘not…a statement of soteriology but of apostolic vocation. The entire passage is about the way in which Paul’s new covenant ministry, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, is in fact God’s appointed means for establishing and maintaining the church. So that we might become Gods righteousness in him means that in Christ those who are called to be apostolic preachers actually embody Gods own covenant faithfulness.’ (N.T. Wright,

In his popular commentary on this letter, Wright says:-

‘The famous verse 21 is often misunderstood, too. It isn’t a general statement about the meaning of the cross, though no doubt Paul would be happy to read it that way as well. It is a statement, as the whole of the last three chapters have been, about his own ministry. He has been called not just to speak about the fact that God has been faithful to the covenant; he is called to embody that faithfulness, to have it worked out, as he has been arguing in chapters 4 and 5, in his own ‘death’ and new life, in his own getting ready to stand before the Messiah’s judgment seat, and above all in his own answering love and devotion to the Messiah who had loved him so much. The cross itself, in all its inexhaustible meaning, stands behind the ministry which Paul exercises, which he wants the Corinthians to understand.
But how is this possible? As he asked in 2:16, who is capable of being God’s agent in this extraordinary work? The answer is in the cross, on which God made the sinless Messiah to ‘be sin’ on our behalf. All our sins, our failings, our inadequacies, were somehow dealt with there, so that we—the apostles, and all who are called to be ‘ministers of reconciliation’—could embody in our own lives the faithfulness of God. No wonder the Corinthians found it difficult to grasp what Paul was up to, why his ministry took the shape it did. Nothing like this had ever been thought of in the world before.
But on this basis he turns to them in the first two verses of chapter 6 with a direct appeal, which comes to us as much as to them. You’ve accepted God’s grace; don’t let it go for nothing! Make the most of it! The new creation is already here. God is saying ‘Yes!’ to all the prophecies and promises (1:20), and he’s saying it right now. This is the day of salvation, the right time. Make the most of it.’

Similarly, in The Resurrection of the Son of God, Wright paraphrases the verse:-

‘God made the Messiah to be sin for us, though he knew no sin, so that in him we might become, might embody, God’s righteousness, God’s covenant faithfulness’.  The traditional reading of the verse understands it as teaching the imputation of God’s righteousness to the believer.  But, according to Wright, ‘this interpretation then regularly leaves the verse dangling off the edge of the argument.’

Wright says elsewhere that Paul is not discussing justification here, but his own apostolic ministry (2 Cor 2:14-6:13).  God is making his appeal through Paul. Apostolic ministry does not merely talk about, but actually embodies, the righteousness – the covenant faithfulness – of God.  He expresses this dual emphasis in four two-pronged statements: (a) Christ died for all; and we live for him, who died and was raised (2 Cor 5:15).  (b) God reconciled us to himself in the Messiah; and has entrusted to us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18).  (c) God was in the Messiah, reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them; and he was also entrusting to us the word of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:19).  (d) Now, in climax (says Wright), Paul comes up with a fourth two-pronged statement of the Messiah’s death and his own ministry: the One who knew no sin, God made sin for us; so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  Now, to ‘become the righteousness of God’ means, for Wright, to ’embody God’s covenant faithfulness, God’s action in reconciling the world to himself’. Similarly, for K. L. Onesti and M. T. Brauch the phrase “to become God’s righteousness” ‘means that believers become participants in God’s reconciling action, extensions of his restoring love.’ (DPL, art. ‘Righteousness, Righteousness of God’)

Wright thinks that the doctrine of ‘double imputation’ is alien to Paul’s teaching here:-

‘His point is that the cross has liberated people from sin, so that they can be God-reflecting, image-bearing, working models of divine covenant faithfulness in action. That is actually what 2 Corinthians as a whole is all about.’ (The Day the Revolution Began)

Wright’s argument depends partly on the parallelism noted above.  It also relies on an understanding of God’s righteousness as his ‘covenant faithfulness’.  It appeals to the meaning of the word genometha (‘become’).  If Paul had been thinking of an imputed righteousness, then he would probably not have used this expression.  But if he is thinking of his role as a Christian minister as embodying God’s covenant faithfulness, then the word fits perfectly well.  This interpretation reflects Paul’s preoccupation throughout this letter, which is to link God’s work in Christ with his own role as an apostle: his apostolic ministry is modelled on the saving work of the Messiah (see, for example, 2 Cor 1:18-22).  Then again, it is consistent with where Paul goes in 2 Cor 6:1, which is to emphasise ‘working together’ with God (which, in context, would mean ‘working together’ in covenant faithfulness).  And in 2 Cor 6:2 he appeals to his readers not to ‘receive God’s grace in vain’, which would mean failing to embody the gospel in its life-changing and world-changing power.  Finally, Paul supports his appeal to the Corinthians with a quotation from Isa 49:8.  The apostle likely had in mind the larger segment within which this quotation lies, in which the Lord goes on to say, ‘I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people…’.  This sequel repeats, according to Wright, the very truth Paul has articulated in 2 Cor 5:21 – ‘That we might, in him, become the righteousness of God.’ (What St Paul Really Said, 104f).  See also Wright’s article ‘On Becoming the Righteousness of God’.

But the leading thought at this point is not ambassadorship (v20a) but reconciliation to God (v20b). Moreover, Paul has said enough about imputation, v19, to indicate that it is the imputation of divine righteousness that is in mind here. Wright’s interpretation of this verse rests partly on his view that Paul, in using first person pronouns (“our”, “we”) must be referring to himself as an apostle.  Schreiner and others argue that Paul’s use of personal pronouns was more flexible that this would suggest: sometimes he is referring to himself, and at other times to his readers. According to Murray Harris, the expression ‘we become’ does not, as Wright suggests, rule out imputation. Wright insists that the doctrine of imputation is absurd, because no judge can give his own righteousness to a guilty criminal.  But this is to assume that the law-court picture of salvation that is presented in the doctrine of justification must accord in every respect with the human situation from which that picture is drawn.  In a human court of law, the judge does not give up his own son to die for the defendant; but that does does not invalidate the picture either.

According to Seifrid, when Wright understands the “we’ of v21 as referring to Paul himself, this entails

‘an unwarranted deflection from the apostolic appeal to the world that Paul voices in v. 20: “we ask on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” V. 21 does not turn attention to the apostle but instead supplies the content of the proclamation that brings that appeal.’

Seifrid himself takes something of a mediating view.  He says that although the traditional Protestant doctrine of imputation is not entirely at odds with what Paul is saying here, it does not adequately capture the apostle’s thought.  Imputation (which is more clearly taught in Romans 4) implies a forensic declaration.  In the present passage, however, Paul is speaking of a forensic event, in which God, by means of Christ’s death and resurrection, creates us anew in Christ.  There, ‘justification is not found in a bare declaration (which must be believed to be effective, in any case) but in a relation, an apprehension or grasping of the crucified and risen Christ.’

K. L. Onesti and M. T. Brauch write:-

‘It is highly significant for the overall understanding of this term that Paul does not say that we in Christ “might become righteous” or “might receive God’s righteousness,” but rather “that we might become God’s righteousness” (see 4 below).’ (DPL, art. ‘Righteousness, Righteousness of God’)

Hafeman states:

‘God’s righteousness is his just character as demonstrated in the consistency of his actions toward his creation in accordance with his covenant promises. Specifically, those actions derive from his unswerving commitment to glorify himself by maintaining his moral standards in judgment, revealing his sovereignty in election, and showing his grace through meeting the needs of his people. God’s righteousness thus includes his acts to redeem and transform his people in the midst of this evil age and culminates in the judgment of the wicked and the restoration of the righteous in the age to come (cf. 3:9, 18; 5:10, 17).’


‘Salvation takes a twofold form. In his work in Christ, God meets us where we are in “sin” and carries us into the “place” of the risen Christ, who is God’s righteousness. As Paul’s formulation also makes clear, this “transfer” entails a change of being. Christ was made what we are—in order that we might become what he is in his resurrected life.’

Seifrid again:-

‘The purpose clause “in order that we might become the righteousness of God in him” contains the productive ambiguity that runs through the entire passage. On the one hand, from the perspective of God’s work in Christ, the purpose has been fulfilled. God has reconciled the world to himself in Christ (v. 19). Paul goes on to describe the Corinthians themselves as “righteousness” and to identify them with Christ (6:14–15). At the same time, the work of God is distributed through the word given to the apostle, who calls the Corinthians afresh to be reconciled with God (v. 20). The purpose clause thus contains an implicit call to this reconciliation. The Corinthians are to “become the righteousness of God” in Christ, not by any work or moral endeavor of their own, but simply by receiving the grace of God given to them in Christ, as Paul exhorts them to do in the following passage (6:2). We cannot remake ourselves. We must be remade by God in Christ.’

And again:-

‘This new reality does not entail an “infusion” or “impartation” of righteousness, nor an “essential” indwelling of divine righteousness. It is best described as a transfer, a relocation of our persons to a “place” outside ourselves: the righteousness of God is found “in Christ.”’


‘It is clear that the righteousness of God comes from him and is conferred on believers who are in Christ. Godless sinners, who previously possessed no righteousness of their own, receive righteousness in sinless Christ who, by a process of substitution, became a sin offering for them. In other words, believers identify with Christ in such a way that they die with Christ to the penalty for their sin (i.e., the curse of the law) and also share with Christ in his resurrection life and vindicated status.’

According to Harper’s Bible Commentary:-

‘The statement that Christ was “made to be sin” so that others “might become the righteousness of God” (5:21) echoes traditional Christian teaching (cf., e.g., Rom. 8:3; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 2:24) and assigns to Christ a role not unlike that accorded to the suffering servant of God in Isaiah 53 (see esp. Isa. 53:4-9).’

‘It is highly significant for the overall understanding of this term that Paul does not say that we in Christ “might become righteous” or “might receive God’s righteousness,” but rather “that we might become God’s righteousness”.’ (DPL)

‘We do not simply have righteousness from God, we are the righteousness of God as a result of being in Christ (see 1 Cor 1:30; 6:11).’ (Garland, NAC)

‘The righteousness of God’ is dikaiosune theou. It is that righteousness which is imputed to us on account of the death of Christ, because of which God does not count our sins against us. Cf. Rom 3:21; Php 3:7-9. For Christ ‘to be sin’, then, means the opposite of this, ie that our sins have been charged to his account. Cf. Isa 53:4-6, 12.

‘In other words, our sins were imputed to the sinless Christ, in order that we sinners, by being united to him, might receive as a free gift a standing of righteousness before God.’ (Stott, The Cross of Christ, 200)


‘This verse contains a beautiful epitome of the whole plan of salvation, and the peculiarity of the Christian scheme. On the one hand, one who was perfectly innocent, by a voluntary substitution, is treated AS IF he were guilty; that is, is subjected to pains and sorrows which if he were guilty would be a proper punishment for sin: and on the other, they who are guilty and who deserve to be punished, are treated, through his vicarious sufferings, as if they were perfectly innocent; that is, in a manner which would be a proper expression of God’s approbation if he had not sinned. The whole plan, therefore, is one of substitution; and without substitution, there can be no salvation.’

Donald MacLeod writes:

‘This righteousness will stand any scrutiny. Omniscience may look at it and find no fault. Infinite holiness may search it and find no blemish. Justice may weigh it and find no short-fall. Conscience may search it, and turn it this way and that, and look at it from every angle and place it under its own pernickety microscope and yet pronounce itself utterly satisfied. It is absolutely right; and it is right all the time. When our faith languishes, when our prayers labour, when grace burns low, when we let God and ourselves down, our righteousness remains the same. Our sins and shortcomings can no more undo our righteousness in Christ than our occasional moments of honour and high endeavour can cancel the guilt we derive from Adam. We are righteous, completely and once for all; as justified today as ever we shall be, even in heaven itself; and as secure in our membership of the household of God as the Son of God Himself.’ (A Faith to Live By)

Many Christian thinkers down the years have marvelled at this ‘great exchange’.  Stott quotes the following:-

‘O sweet exchange!  O unsearchable operation!  O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single Righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors.  (Epistle to Diognetus, 2nd century) Learn to know Christ and him crucified.  Learn to sing to him and say “Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, I am your sin.  You took on you what was mine; yet set on me what was yours.  You became what you were not, that I might become what I was not. (Martin Luther) Such we are in the sight of God the Father, as is the very Son of God himself.  Let it be counted folly or frenzy or fury or whatsoever.  It is our wisdom and our comfort; we care for no knowledge in the world but this, that man hath sinned and God has suffered; that God hath made himself the sin of men, and that men are made the righteousness of God.’ (Richard Hooker, 1585)

Justification means this miracle: that Christ take our place and we take him’ (Emil Brunner, 20th century)

‘Repentant sinners are simultaneously righteous and unrighteous. They are righteous by reason of their mystical union with Christ’ while in themselves, considered apart from Christ, they are unrighteous.’ (Carnell, The Case for Orthodox Theology)

Other texts that, in the view of many interpreters, teach imputation are: Rom. 4:4–5; 5:17–19; 1 Cor. 1:30; Phil. 3:7–9.